John crossed the bridge with his head down. He watched each wading boot meet a railroad tie before picking up his other foot for the next step. Cautiously, he walked the odd and narrow gait required when walking the tracks. And with nothing but air between each massive railroad tie, he could see the river below.
I’ve never known anyone to fall on a railroad bridge. I suppose you couldn’t fall through. But you’d surely break a leg or twist an ankle with one wrong step on that slick wood.
So I stood by the “No Trespassing” sign, next to the edge of the bridge, and watched my friend slowly make his way toward me. He looked disappointed. And when gravel filled in the gaps between ties, when John was back on solid ground, his head stayed down.
“Did you catch a Namer?” I asked with feigned enthusiasm.
“Ha! Nope, I surely didn’t do that,” John said, waving his hand and brushing off my next question.”
I took the cue and remained silent, waiting for John to speak again.
I turned and joined his walk in the opposite direction, down a wide path through a stand of tall pine trees. And the canyon wind did what it always does through there. The branches and the deep bed of pine needles soaked up the sounds of life and created a calm hush, while the wind at the treetops formed an amplified whisper that competed with a river rushing below. I was just about to comment on all of this, when John finally spoke.
“I don’t even want to know how many you caught, Dom. Because it’ll piss me off.”
I began another reply, but John continued . . .
“I started at the lower tip of the island, because I’ve done really well there before. And I caught three right away,” John said. “One was an upper-teens trout, and he fought really hard.”
“Nice.” I nodded.
“But then . . .“ John motioned with exasperation. “Nothing else all morning.”
I nodded again.
“I mean, I might have had a couple more hits, but I’m not even sure about that,” John said. “You know how it is.”
“I do,” I replied.
Then I stopped and looked at John. He noticed my pause, and turned to meet me.
“How far up did you fish?” I asked. “Did you get up to the second island?”
The pines creaked as John stared back up the path, imagining the river upstream.
“No. I just fished the first island,” he said.
“Both sides?” I asked.
John shook his head again. “No. Only the left side. Why? Do you think that wasn’t enough?” he asked.
“Well, you weren’t catching trout, right?” I asked rhetorically.
John sighed, and we walked again.
“Then yeah,” I said a few moments later. “I would have covered a lot more water.”
— — — — — —
John is an average fisherman. And he’s into the game as much as he can be. With three kids in three different sports, a job that has him traveling too much and a home with an unfinished addition that’s dragged on now for a couple years, John is lucky to get to the river once a month. So when he does get out, his skills are average. Because his river time is so sparse, he clings to whatever tactics worked last time, and he fishes the same water that produced before. His limited hours on the water have John floundering a bit when the trout are difficult — and trout are usually difficult.
Sometimes I feel bad around John, because my fishing life is the opposite of his. I spend hundreds of days a year on the water, either guiding or fishing. One of the best streams in the world is out my back door and down the hill. So trout rivers are part of my daily life, and I realize that’s a privilege. It’s also an advantage.
I witness the habits of our favorite fish, day in and day out. And the best piece of advice I may offer to any trout fisherman is this: Cover water and catch trout. Can it really be that simple? Yes.
But here’s the caveat: Covering water means fishing it well. And of course, it takes a lot of casts and mistakes to get to the point when you know that you’ve fished a piece of water well. But when you have — then move on.
At What Pace?
How much you should move is completely dependent on the river and the method you are fishing.
When nymphing, I often focus on a single lane of perhaps twenty feet. I refine my drifts through one lane until I see that the sighter shows me a good ride with the nymphs in the strike zone. Then after a few solid drifts, I move on. Often that move is close, to the outside of the same lane or over a foot or two. Other times, I might step upstream and fish a prime lane that leads through an undercut bank, working to refine my drifts in that lane. I like to work all the good nymphing water in front of me, and when I get to the next flat water or slow pool, I jump up to the next riffle or run.
While fishing streamers, I cover more water. I fish the long flies while constantly wading a river in motion. I pick a piece of the stream and target the best structure. And my feet rarely stop moving. I may not go far with each step, but I’m continually shifting and positioning myself for the next angle — the next cast. Because each likely lie gets only a couple of looks with my streamer.
Dry flies can be a little different. If the trout give me targets on top, then I might fish a lot slower. Like most anglers, I enjoy the challenge of fooling a rising trout. So if a good presentation is rejected a few times, as the fly drifts drag free over the riser, I might change flies once or twice.
More often, I fish dries at about the same pace as I fish nymphs. I like to prospect with dry flies, working the likely holding water while keeping a keen eye for my next rising target. While prospecting, if I achieve a few good drifts in one seam, I move on.
Too Much and Not Enough
Regardless of the fly type, our goal is to find hungry and willing trout.
John found success in the first spot he fished. And that happens to him a lot. His mistake was to stay on and try to make too much out of one piece of water. He covered, at most, a hundred-and-fifty yards of river in that left channel which is only forty feet across. And he took four hours to do so.
There were probably a hundred trout in that left channel, of various sizes. But how many were hungry? How many did John spook? And how many were turned off by inaccurate drifts the first couple times through?
Cover water and catch trout. It doesn’t mean flying upstream, forever chasing the next perfect piece of river with a grass-is-greener approach. It means that whatever piece of water you are fishing, fish it well. And then move on.
If you want to cherry pick the best spots all morning and cover a half mile of river, then do that. But at each spot, cover it. Fish it until you get the looks that you want to see. Give trout the best chance to view the fly as natural and available food. That’s your job. And it’s the trout’s job to eat it. And when he doesn’t? Tip your cap and move on. Don’t stubbornly hang on in one spot just because you know trout are there. Sure they are — but if they aren’t eating, there isn’t much you can do about it. So find another target.
Cover water and catch trout. Think about that the next time things are slow. Stay disciplined. Do what it takes to get good drifts, and then be ambitious enough to keep wading.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N